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FORUMS | CHAT | PRINT THIS STORY

A poetic final stanza for Martin

By Mike Griffith, News-Sentinel sportswriter
January 2, 2000

TEMPE, Ariz. - A writer himself, Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin knows poetry when he sees it.

Martin said in mid-November he had a feeling the Vols would end their season against Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.

"It's kind of poetic," Martin said. "This is the team it started with, and this is where it ends."

Martin made his national debut cleaning up the fourth quarter of Tennessee's embarrassing 42-17 loss to the Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl two years ago.

If not for Martin, the score would have been 42-9. Martin replaced an ineffective Peyton Manning and drove the Vols 80 yards in eight plays for a touchdown and 2-point conversion, completing all five of the passes he attempted and scrambling 11 yards on another play.

Tennessee used the loss to Nebraska as a springboard for its 1998 national championship season.

"We used that game as a stepping stone," said Martin, who is 22-2 as the Vols' starter. "It showed us where we needed to be to compete for the national championship."

Martin has proven to be the difference between winning and losing for UT throughout his career.

"The guy that really makes them go is Tee Martin," said South Carolina coach Lou Holtz, who tried to recruit Martin when he was at Notre Dame. "Tee is just a winner; the guy is a competitor."

Martin's versatility was most evident in the Vols' 21-7 victory over Alabama in Tuscaloosa this season. Martin was 11-of-17 passing for 147 yards and a touchdown, in addition to rushing for 49 yards and two touchdowns.

"We really had things in place to stop him," Alabama defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. "On the bootlegs he scored on, we had outside pressure coming, and we had a spy guy watching him. We just couldn't make the plays."

Martin has made plays for the Vols since the fourth quarter of that Orange Bowl game against Nebraska.

"I was very prepared for that game," Martin said. "I had gotten most all of the repetitions with the ones (first unit)."

Indeed, Tennessee headed to Miami believing Martin would start the game. Manning's preparation for the Orange Bowl was very limited after he suffered a knee injury in UT's 30-29 victory over Auburn in the 1997 SEC Championship Game.

"Peyton had missed all the bowl work here on campus and some of the work there (in Miami)," UT coach Phillip Fulmer said.

Fulmer and his staff adjusted the game plan to take advantage of Martin's mobility. But a few days before the game, Manning pronounced himself ready to play, and Tennessee shifted back to its conventional offensive ways of the regular season.

"I had been practicing like they were counting on me being the guy," Martin said. "When they made the decision to go with Peyton, it was very disheartening."

A few days later, the Big Orange fans were disheartened to see Manning struggle against Nebraska, passing for a season-low 134 yards.

No one could question the decision to start Manning at the time, but in hindsight ...

"You have to wonder what would've happened if Tee started," UT All-American guard Cosey Coleman said. "When Tee came in we got that quick score. But it might have been one of those late-game scores, because there were some second-teamers in there."

Martin said he never second-guessed his coaches' decision.

"You can't argue with playing Peyton," Martin said. "I don't get into what-ifs or would'ves or could'ves."

The reality is that Martin might be better equipped to handle the Cornhuskers' blitzing than was Manning.

"They know what I can do," Martin said. "The question is, do they want me to stand in the pocket and throw, or do they want me to get outside the pocket and make plays?"

And Martin does plan on making plays, regardless of what it takes.

"I got tired of negative plays early in the season," said Martin, who was sacked seven times in the Vols' 23-21 loss at Florida. "There were games where I was standing in the pocket and just getting sacked. I decided I wanted to start attacking the defense and put pressure on them.

"I realized I needed to run more and make them respect that threat more. It slows them down."

It's the same game plan Martin had the last time the Vols were preparing for Nebraska. Only this time, Martin will have four quarters to make it work.

It's Tee Time for Tennessee one last time and the quarterback from Mobile, Ala., is ready and primed.

Sounds poetic.

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